You might not have been able to visit a beach this spring but you can still walk amid tiny beach umbrellas, also known as mayapples, in the woods of the Hickory Knolls Natural Area.
Good Natured: Hickory Knolls Natural Area
April 17, 2020
Okay folks, show of (thoroughly washed) hands… How many of you had your spring break plans dashed by the COVID-19 conflagration? Were your visions of cocktails on the lido deck replaced by jug wine swilled from juice glasses? Instead of lounging on the beach in a new swimsuit, are you lolling on the couch in PJs that date to sometime in the 1990s? Do you now despise the smell of disinfecting wipes?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I’ve got a suggestion that might help you turn your frown upside down. Or at least get you to change into something you can wear in public.
Now more than ever, the paths and trails of our local parks and forest preserves beckon your presence. The restrooms might be locked, the playgrounds and picnic shelters off limits, but the woods, prairies and wetlands are free for you to explore to your heart’s content. Their wide-open spaces make physical distancing easy, and their springtime beauty…well, it’s positively stunning.
OK, I’ll admit, I’ve been a fan of these special places for years. I’ll never forget the first time I saw white pelicans at Dick Young Forest Preserve in Batavia, or the time my young neighbors and I surprised a deer family (or, rather, they surprised us) on a trail at Tekakwitha Woods in St. Charles. I remember watching a mom wood duck skillfully guide her young brood past untold underwater dangers at Les Arends in North Aurora; stumbling on cancer-root, an odd plant that lacks chlorophyll, at Norris Woods in St. Charles; and wading into various wetlands where fairy shrimp– cute little Sea Monkey-like crustaceans–appeared and disappeared like, well, fairies.
What’s really great is that these local adventures-all of which are now indelible memories–happened with little effort and virtually no planning. How many big vacations can you say that about?
Of all the local destinations, one of my favorites has to be the Hickory Knolls Natural Area, the 130-acre chunk of open space that lies just beyond my former home base, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.
Hickory Knolls is located within the James O. Breen Community Park, which is at the corner of Peck and Campton Hills Roads. The natural area, or HKNA, as we call it, begins on the other side of the road that leads to the St. Charles “Boys Home,” now the Illinois Youth Center-St. Charles. Prairies, woodlands, wetlands … this place has them all, along with a seemingly endless array of wildflowers and wildlife.
Spring is a great time to visit, too. The greenish-purple shoots of the spring ephemerals-those wildflowers that must emerge, flower and set their seeds before the leaves are out on the trees–are just starting to creep up through the leafy carpet of the woodland floor. As I write this, hepatica and bloodroot, two of the earliest risers, are in bloom, and mayapples, which look like Barbie’s beach umbrellas, aren’t far behind.
You’d better be prepared for noise too. Many birds are busy setting up breeding territories, using their songs to declare boundaries, ward off competitors and impress their mates. And the frogs! If you’re looking for a one-stop spot to hear spring peepers, chorus and leopard frogs, Hickory Knolls is your place.
But perhaps the park’s best feature is one that’s been here every day, for thousands of years: its topography. Formed by the ebb and flow of the Wisconsin glacier as it beat a long, slow retreat from this area 10,000 years ago, the area’s hills actually are glacial formations known as kames and moraines. There are potholes too–pothole wetlands, that is. These depressions, at the north edge of the natural area, are depressions left by chunks of remnant glacial ice.
These formations run directly opposite of the commonly held notion that our area is “boring.” True, we don’t have Rocky Mountains, or even Smoky Mountains. But we do have terrain. Like my friend Valerie says, “Illinois isn’t flat like a pancake, it’s bumpy like an omelet.”
I know. You’re probably thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. Hickory Knolls Natural Area… St. Charles Park District… She’s just writing this because she has to.” Ah, that is so not true.
I started strolling this area years ago, long before I started working for the park district. One of my favorite things back then, and one that remains today, is that you can literally get lost in the hills here. No, not the dangerous kind of lost that involves signal flares and dramatic helicopter rescues. Rather, I’m talking about the good kind of lost – the sort where your body relaxes, your mind unwinds, and you’re free to get lost in the moment.
If you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up, go ahead and give the HKNA a try. Dress for the weather, distance yourself from your hiking buddies and leave your COVID cares behind. I mean this in the best possible way: Get lost!
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.